Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Yachats Gazette, Issue 29, January 1, 2014

Interview with Commander Rick Brennan, Chief of the Hydrographic Branch of NOAA

The Yachats Gazette first met Commander Brennan at a talk hosted by the Yachats Arts & Sciences Guild, and in speaking with him afterward, was invited to tour the research vessel Rainier. We met up with CDR Brennan on the pier, then moved inside the ship.

TYG-Graphic Design: It looks like you guys have uniforms on. Are you part of an armed force somehow?
CDR Brennan:  We are part of a uniformed force. So there are seven uniformed services in the United States, five of which are armed forces. So you’ve got the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and the Coast Guard. Then there are two other ones, which are the lesser-known ones of the uniformed services: [NOAA] is the seventh, and the sixth one is the Public Health Service. So you’ll see, we have a couple of the Public Health Service officers here, and they’re kind of chameleons, because they will go wherever they’re needed. So a lot of times if they sail or work with the Navy or the Coast Guard, they’ll wear whatever the uniform of that service is that they’re serving. They sail on our ships. If we have a ship that’s going to be away from land and be in a place where there is no medical service, they’ll actually sail on board with us in case there was a medical problem.

TYG: [changing subject] Here’s my question: you said there are four aluminum boats usually-- shouldn’t that be RA2 and RA4 then, or is that one [pointing at a rescue boat] RA 1?
CDR Brennan: The odd boats are on the starboard side, and the even boats are on the port side.

TYG: Oh, so you have five boats?
CDR Brennan: Well, we actually have even more than that. So that’s RA 1 which is our fast rescue boat—that’s the orange boat. If somebody were to fall over the side, that we’d deploy that boat. Because it’s, well, fast and easy to deploy.

TYG-GD: Does it tip over to the side?
CDR Brennan: Well, that big white arm that says Vestdavit on it, it’s actually on hydraulics. So it pivots out to the side, and that it lowers the boat all the way down to the water. And then the other two boats, it operates the same way. So that’s 1, 3, 5, and then we’ve got 2, 4, and 6 on the other side, although we don’t have a 2 boat right now. We’re actually getting a new number 2 boat. And then we have 7 and 8, which are skiffs. […] You’ll see them when we come on board. But sometimes when you come up close it’s hard to see that there’s a boat there, because will be up underneath them. I’ll show you the details on those a little bit later.

TYG-GD: I noticed this has a long prow… Bow? Is this boat used as an icebreaker? I know you said you’re going to be up in Alaska.
CDR Brennan: She’s ice-strengthened, but she’s not an icebreaker.

TYG: My guess is that it’s mostly for speed then?
CDR Brennan: That’s just kind of the way the boats were designed. This boat [the Rainier] is actually 45 years old. So this is a very traditionally-designed research vessel.

TYG: She doesn’t look 45!
CDR Brennan: I know! She’s in great shape, and that’s thanks to the crew on board. They do a wonderful job of maintaining her. But this ship [points to the ship tied fore of the Rainier] is one of our newest ships. So you can see that it’s a completely different design style. Much higher. Very blocky. They’re not big into aesthetics these days. [laughter]

TYG: It looks more like an oil platform rather than a research ship!
CDR Brennan: It does. But one of the things is that on this ship, 45 years ago, people were not very interested in creature comforts. We have a number of rooms where we have four people living in one stateroom. It’s very cramped quarters. So we’ve learned over the past 45 years that people kind of like a little privacy, you know? […] So that’s why these ships have gotten bigger—they’ve tried to limit it so that each crew member only has to room with one person instead of three people. So instead of having four-man rooms, they have two-man rooms, which means that the ship has to get much bigger. So would you like to come on board now?

TYG: Yes, Sir! [We walk up the gangway.] I like that this gangway is pretty shallow!

CDR Brennan: So, the first thing that you get to the starboard conning station. Starboard is just the right side of the ship. This is where, if we were coming into the pier like we are right now, we would have this cover removed and I can show you—just take a quick peek here—we have throttles and bow thruster here. We don’t necessarily have the ability to steer the ship from here but usually we’ll just have somebody standing at the steering wheel. Also, here, we have the Gyro repeater, which is basically like a compass, except it’s run on gyroscopic principles as opposed to magnetic.

TYG: I see! So it always points north, no matter what direction it is.
CDR Brennan: And, it’s not susceptible to the magnetic characteristics of the ship. Because as you know, metal always has some latent magnetic properties, and this whole ship is metal. [Moving inward] This is the bridge. This is where we navigate from. So when we’re sailing from point to point, this area is always manned. We have two radars, an X and an S band, which relates the frequency of the radar.

TYG: X being higher, I’m guessing?
CDR Brennan: Yes, it is higher. Higher frequency, meaning…

TYG: Shorter range?
CDR Brennan: Yes, you’re right, shorter range, and it means what about its wavelength?

TYG: It’s going to be less between the peaks. And so you get finer detail.
CDR Brennan: That’s exactly right. And so this one, as you indicated, is very good for close in, say 1 to 6 or 1 to 12 miles. The S band, since it has a longer look wavelength and a lower frequency, can travel much farther. So we use that to see, as we call it, “over the horizon,” out from the 12 to 48 mile range, to see if there are any ships farther away from us that we should be planning on. […] So steering wheel is here. This is what we call our ECDIS system, which is Electronic Chart Display Information System.

TYG: So it’s where a map would be in the old days.
CDR Brennan: We still have paper charts, but this is our electronic one. We actually have a number of them, so we’ll have this one here [ECDIS], and then we’ll display a similar one right here, that we use for kind of instantaneous planning. We use [ECDIS] for navigation as well, but it tends to be kind of our long-term planning, let’s say if were on a track from here to Kodiak. This one over here, we can see if there’s a quick anchorage or something.

TYG: How does someone type on such a small keyboard?
CDR Brennan: We don’t do a whole lot of typing on it. If we have to do a lot of typing, we usually plug in a USB keyboard. And the guy who usually types on it has fingers as big as Italian sausages. [laughter]

TYG: I’m guessing that this equipment isn’t up-to-date?
CDR Brennan:
No, this is a fairly modern system. […] A lot of the new ones do have touchscreens, but the problem with this is, that for it to be compliant to be on a maritime vessel, it has to have all sorts of accessibility requirements. When they do that, they call it being type approved. And so to be type approved for a maritime vessel, it has to operate with a certain operating system, and it has to have all sorts of redundancies, like backup power supply, and a backup hard drive.

TYG:  Although that could be very useful! Say you hit an iceberg or something, that could be very useful. [The accident] could take out some of your main power wires, and if you have backup wires, that’s great. You can get the ship out of there, and limp it to a repair station. If you don’t have the backups, you’re stuck there until you can get a crew down there.
CDR Brennan: Absolutely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take anything near as catastrophic as that, as we found out one time.

One time, we found that the voltage that was being put out by the ship’s generators dipped down just a little bit lower than what our emergency generator was expecting, so the emergency generator kicked on. It started blinking back and forth, and it shut all of this stuff down—all the bridge equipment. It shut the radars down. That’s how we found out that the battery power for this UPS, the uninterruptible power supply, was dead. We were basically navigating out of a small port in Alaska, and we were heading right to land, getting ready to make a 90° turn when all that happened. And that was just a simple little electronic glitch. Luckily we were going very slowly, and maneuvering with caution. We immediately stopped the engines and came to a complete stop until we figured it all out. But that was a brief bit of excitement we had. […] This is the steering wheel here.

TYG: It looks like it turns 45° each way, that’s your maximum radius?
CDR Brennan: Nominally, yes; I think typically it doesn’t go that far. I think 35°—I need to go back and look at our rudder stops.

TYG-GD: It’s interesting that in the old-time ships, the wheels were huuuuuuge, and now you have this little bitty bitty thing—it’s even smaller than a car steering wheel.
CDR Brennan: I’ve seen some in the newer ships, they don’t even have one this big, it’s just a dial. It’s a little offputting to think they are controlling the ship [with this].

TYG: [Changing subject] What’s this?
CDR Brennan: This is the bow thruster. So we want to thrust the bow to starboard, we just push that over, and there’s basically a small diesel engine in the bow of the ship that drives the propeller one way or the other. […] It’s like a giant outboard motor. And these [shows some different thrusters] are propellers on the ship: so this is forward, and this is astern. The interesting thing is that on this ship, the propellers are always spinning. So when we start the engines, the propellers start spinning immediately.

TYG: How do you stop then?
CDR Brennan: Well, we don’t stop. If we want to stop, we have to turn the engines off. But the way we create propulsion, is that the blades of the propeller are like the blades on a jet prop airplane, and they change pitch. They’re called a variable pitch propeller. So if we want to go in reverse, the propellers change pitch to move the water forward, and we go astern.

TYG-GD: So, the person who is steering, is not the person who is speeding. So you have to have two people.
CDR Brennan: When we’re underway, and out of port, and offshore, there will typically be only two or three people here on the bridge. But when we’re leaving port I’m always there.

[Moving over a bit to the spread-out paper map, held down at the corners by 4 flattish leather discs] So this is where we are here.

TYG: Cool paper weights!
CDR Brennan: Yep! These are just beanbags—these are what draftsmen used to use quite a bit, because [they] didn’t mar the paper. Do you know where we are?

TYG: [locates the ship on the map, which is covered in depth readings only in the mid-20’s along the pier] So if you wanted to get underway, you’d full reverse, move the wheel probably full 35° left. You’d come out [from the pier]. Now disengage the engines— put the propellers back to zero—we’re now facing [west]. Then we could simply engage the engines forward and drive out of the bay. Is that how you do it?
CDR Brennan: Well, sort of. The propellers and the rudders are at the back of the ship. So, we’re able to control the back of the ship very well, but the front of the ship doesn’t respond very well until we’re actually moving. […] So, how does a rudder work?

TYG: [explains with many gestures that the rudder works in a direction opposite to that in which you turn the steering wheel.] And it goes through a complicated system of gearing. And I think I know why the old [steering] wheels were so big. [It’s] because there was no electric drive controlling it. Now, probably, it signals an electronic brain to move it to a certain degree.
CDR Brennan: Yep, it’s all hydraulic. So in the old ships, that’s why it was so big. When you see the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, or any of the big tall ships, the wheels might be 6 or 8 feet in diameter. That’s because it gives you a mechanical advantage. You used to have to turn some chains on a chain drive, and the rudder was as big as a barn door. So you can imagine—to turn that wheel, particularly on the tall ships, they would have to have two people on the wheel: one pulling up on one side, and the other to be pulling down on the other side. And as they got into any kind of seaway, where they had all the sails up, it would be very difficult. But now, everything is run by hydraulics, which are very simple. But there are actually two computers inside that system, one for each of the redundant systems that control the rudder. I’ll show you where those are.

[Coming back to the map and the question of leaving the pier] The rudders don’t work unless we have water flowing over them, because that’s the only way they’re going to create any type of force.

TYG: [proposes engaging the engine in reverse]
CDR Brennan: But if you’ve got it going backwards, where is the water flowing from your propellers?

TYG: The water is flowing forwards.
CDR Brennan: Is any of it going over the rudders then?

TYG: […] No.
CDR Brennan: It’s confusing, isn’t it! […] Here, I have something I can show you—we have these discussions quite a bit. [We go down a deck into the Commander’s office, which is attached to his stateroom.]

Just for these occasions, I have a ship here. [He shows us a magnet shaped like a ship with a schematic of the interior, positioned on his office door, which is metal. He grabs a whiteboard marker.] I think I can erase this… We’re at the pier, and we have our propellers, and our rudders are aft of them. […] We actually turn like wanting to turn into the pier, and then we go forward. Then the prop wash starts running over the rudders, and it pushes the stern out like that. And I’ll tell you another sneaky thing that we do: we have a mooring line that ties the bow to the pier. So that keeps us from going forward at all and allows the stern to come out [the ship swings around out from the pier, with the bow as the stationary point]. Then once the stern is away from the pier, we can take that line in, and we back away. A little counterintuitive, right?

TYG: Thank you for the explanation! […]

CDR Brennan: So this is my office—if you want to, you can go and take a look into my stateroom. That’s where I live. This is the penthouse suite here on the ship. Nobody else has a room this big, for which I feel very lucky.

TYG-GD: Wow, you have a fridge and everything! And fishing poles! And a private bathroom!
CDR Brennan: Having come from the smallest ship in the fleet to this ship, it feels very luxurious.

TYG: The smallest ship in the fleet? How small is the ship?
CDR Brennan:
90 feet. [The Rainier] is 230 feet. I had a bunk bed that I shared with the other guy, and then we shared one bathroom between four people, so that made it lots of fun. It was very tiny. So if somebody had to walk through the room, the other person had to get into their bed!

TYG-GD: [Seeing cards for “Dad” on the wall] So, we wanted to ask you about your family. What happens when you go away? Are they here?
CDR Brennan:
Yep, they stay here. My last assignment was on the Fairweather, which is the ship just astern of us here. Technically, her home port is in Ketchikan, Alaska. I was the executive officer on there. While I was on there, my family was in Norfolk, Virginia. That was very difficult, because they were four hours’ difference from us when we were in Alaska. It was very hard to communicate with them, because when I was getting up, they were at work; when I was getting off work, they were going to bed; and so that was really tough. So when I got this assignment, I said: “No, no. We’re not going to do that.” So the family moved out here with me and it’s been wonderful. […] My two years on this ship will be finished this coming June, and so when school gets out, we will pack up and move back to the East Coast again. I’m going to go to Washington, DC, for an assignment there.

TYG-GD: It’s a lot of moving for them! Do they like it out here, though?
CDR Brennan:
Yes, they’ve had a really good time. This is the first time any of us have ever lived on the West Coast. I’ve had assignments here, but [it’s the first time] that the family’s been here. We’ve enjoyed it. We did a trip around Oregon this summer, and went to Crater Lake, the lava lands, the Cove Palisades [State Park, in Terrebonne, OR], kind of just toured all around. Every time we get a chance, we go. We went to the Giant Spruce yesterday for a hike [down at Perpetua]. We love that. It’s kind of one of our quick, simple hikes.

TYG: I have a question. Are all the beds this comfy?
CDR Brennan:
Pretty standard mattress on all of them. […] It’s better than a hammock, that’s for sure. But I know that I get the best room in the house here. Certainly a lot of guys, who are more senior than I am in age, have to live in fairly tight quarters, so I try to be very respectful of that.

[Moving back into the office] That piece of equipment over there is a 36-inch plotter. So we can make our own charts if we want to, and a lot of times we will print out some data. So if you want, we can go to the plot room, and I’ll show you that, and I’ll show you some of the data.

TYG: Yes, Sir! [We move back up the ladder, into the room directly aft of the bridge.]

CDR Brennan: This is what we call our plot room, and this [gestures at a large sheet of paper on top of the large collection of filing drawers filling most of the center of the room]…

TYG: … Depth measure, I’m guessing?
CDR Brennan:
Yes, yes it is, in fact.

TYG:  What’s the scale? 100 feet?
CDR Brennan:
Um, chart scale 1:10,000. So the charts are in feet on this one.

TYG: I see. I guess the colors mean something… so let’s see, the deepest part of the Port [of Newport] is about… 40 feet?
CDR Brennan:
That’s right.

TYG-GD: What’s the draft of this ship?
CDR Brennan:
17 feet. Here’s the problem—what do you notice right here? [Points at a spot near where the ship is moored, which reads 16 feet.]

TYG-GD: Wait, so are you resting on the bottom?
CDR Brennan:
No, we’re actually here right now [at 24 feet]. […] When we came in last year, we pulled in at high tide, and we said: “Wow, it looks really shallow here, I don’t remember it being this shallow!”  [Our] boat had just gone and done a survey. We looked at the data, and said: “Huh! That is not the 25 feet we’re supposed to have here!” So we ended up sliding back, and that’s why this spot along here is vacant right now. They’re actually going to start dredging in January. What ended up happening, is that when they put this whole pier in, the water flows right through here [through the pilings]. So as it flows through, it hits the piles under the pier and that slows it down. All the sediment drops right there. […] So all the stuff in color is the stuff that we surveyed.

TYG: How did you survey this? It’s only 10 feet [on the north side of the breakwater].
CDR Brennan:
Oh, with the aluminum boats. That’s why we have those launches, because they can get into these smaller places. Technically this ship has the capability to do it, but we would want to take the ship back [behind the breakwater].

TYG-GD: So what’s the radius of the depth sounding when you’re on the main ship?
CDR Brennan:
It’s 150° I think. Different sonars have different spreads on them. At its worst about 90°—45° to either side, but typically we’re filtering out at about 60° I believe. So we get 60° to either side, so about 120°. Most of the systems today do about 150°, but the outer couple of degrees and up getting a little fuzzy. A lot of times we don’t use them because they’re statistically not as good. That’s a fixed swath—the deeper the water, the wider the swath is. As we get shallower and shallower, the amount of work goes up and up and up, because there’s a lot more work to cover a square nautical mile the shallower the water is. So in one pass, we go offshore and we can get almost a kilometer-wide swath if we’re in deep water.

TYG-GD: [Examining a different piece of paper] So this is your ship on all levels?
CDR Brennan:
Yes, this is our DC plan, which is Damage Control. Usually, when were under way, once a week we’ll have a drill. We’ll set off a fire alarm, and they’ll say: “Oh, well, it’s on the C deck.” We are currently on D deck. We may say it’s in somebody’s stateroom, and so the people up here will direct the fire teams, telling them where to go, what the fire is, what was reported to be. People go down there with fire hoses and dressed up in full fireman regalia, or turnout gear as we call it, so that they can fight the fire. Because when we’re out at sea, there’s no fireman to call, so we have to fulfill that requirement ourselves. So that’s a weekly evolution we do just to keep people on their toes.
As I was saying, we have a sonar on the ship that can do surveys and that all feeds into that system over there [points to several large black boxes and dead screens on the wall].

TYG: That’s a lot of monitors for one guy!
CDR Brennan:
It is!  You were asking about sound velocity casts earlier; this is where we get the readout, but I’ll talk more about that when we get to the fantail.

TYG: The sound velocity also depends on the thickness of the water, the viscosity, and the amount of ambient stuff. Because if there’s a lot of ambient matter in the water, then you aren’t going to have any kind of effective reading.
CDR Brennan:
That’s right. Well, you can get an effective reading, but it will be very spatially limited.

TYG: Let’s say you’re going over a plankton cluster, you might not even hit the bottom.
CDR Brennan: 
That’s true!  I’d turn these on, but we’ve had some guys doing some work up here. We have these other machines that are used to process the data. If we survey for an hour, all said and done, by the time we do the reports and everything, it’s going to take another four hours to get that [data] out the door. To do a typical survey, it may take us anywhere from 8 to 10 days of surveying and on each of those days we may have multiple vessels surveying—we may have three or four launches working on that one sheet, so it’s a lot. […]

TYG-GD: [Indicating the small disco ball, which has seen better days, hanging from a cord in the center of the room] So, is this your party room? [Note: there are so many file drawers in the center that it’s barely possible to have a small aisle around the room, and this is filled with chairs for each of the computer stations.]
CDR Brennan: [Laughing]
We’ve probably had about 400 students right before Christmas come through here, and that’s the one thing they are always intrigued by, this disco ball. That has been quite a source of rivalry between the two ships [the Rainier and the Fairweather]. I forget whether it was started on Rainier, and abducted by Fairweather… The chief steward on the Fairweather used to be a second cook here I believe. She’s pretty fun-loving, and she had gotten [the disco ball]. Point being that whenever the two ships would get together, there would be these stealth teams that would sneak over and kidnap the ball and hold it ransom. We’re currently the keeper of the ball. So it hangs there in honor of that little bit of rivalry. When I was on the Fairweather, we had a team of divers that snuck into the water and swam up under the Rainier and scratched a message into the slime on the hull. It wasn’t until they got pulled out that they saw this.

TYG: What was the message?
CDR Brennan: [Laughter]
I don’t even remember. It was some derogatory remark about the people on the Rainier. All in good humor. [We move outside] 

 Part 2 of the interview with Commander Brennan will be featured in the next issue of The Yachats Gazette. We wish you all a prosperous, beautiful, and splendorous New Year!